15 reasons the East-West Highway will never be built (plus a political bonus!)

Analysis: Nails in the coffin
By LANCE TAPLEY  |  September 6, 2012

RIPEWHwy_GraveMerged_main

This past spring, out of the blue, Republican Governor Paul LePage and the GOP-controlled Maine Legislature funded a $300,000 study by the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) of the feasibility of a corporate-owned, toll superhighway across the middle of the state. It would go 220 miles from New Brunswick to Quebec, from Calais to Coburn Gore.

An East-West Highway had been proposed and dismissed several times in the past 70 years. Suddenly, it became hot. Just as suddenly, it became cold — well, lukewarm.

In August, out of the blue again, its chief legislative promoter, Republican Senator Doug Thomas, of Ripley, asked LePage to put the study on hold. The governor immediately agreed.

They had been spooked by the opposition in rural central Maine of a powerful populist, election-year pairing of grass-roots environmentalists and property-rights advocates — an Occupy–Tea Party fusion.

These folks were particularly incensed by the possibility the state might seize property — using its right of "eminent domain" — to ram the highway into existence to please the corporate powers.

The highway's chief salesman, Peter Vigue, CEO of the big construction corporation Cianbro — whose speeches had gathered growing news-media attention as well as swelling numbers of sign-waving protesters — issued an unconvincing statement he was okay with what the officials decided. Then he slunk off stage.

The highway opponents — many in a Stop the East-West Corridor coalition — vowed to keep fighting. They assumed the highway, with its vaguely described "communications and utility corridor," might rise from the dead again once Election Day is past.

But while it's wise for opponents to keep a watch over the political graveyard, there are many reasons to believe the East-West Highway is not only dead, it actually has long been dead and its reappearance this year was that of a phantom, a ghost.

Here are 15 of those reasons, and we threw in a bonus reason to boot! (Consider them one for each Maine county.) They are roadblocks to the highway's construction — and perhaps nails in its coffin. They zoom in on Vigue's plan, but many pertain to any grand East-West proposal, though many wouldn't block a mere upgrading of some of Maine's existing roads. We'll start with a few unnoticed roadblocks:

OVERLOOKED DEAL KILLERS

• SIXTY-ONE MILES OF A CANADIAN SUPERHIGHWAY The East-West Highway, says Peter Mills, director of the Maine Turnpike Authority, needs "full cooperation from Quebec." It would require a superhighway from the Maine border to the existing Montreal expressway at Sherbrooke.

The peaceful, hilly countryside from the border to Sherbrooke is an important Quebec tourist and farming region, the Eastern Townships. It includes two national parks. Given the character of this region, it's striking that our big neighbor — including its environmentalists and environmental-permitting process — hasn't been engaged on this issue. Patrick Binns, the Canadian consul in Boston, says it hasn't been much discussed in his country.

Here's a huge Canadian barrier: light pollution from a superhighway and a big border-crossing station would be a major threat to Canada's most important astronomical observatory, on Mont Mégantic in Mont-Mégantic National Park, only 14 air miles from Coburn Gore.

In fact, the International Dark-Sky Association has established the world's first International Dark Sky Reserve around the observatory, encompassing 2123 square miles. A superhighway would have to pass through the reserve's most protected zone.

This is a serious reserve. Sherbrooke — 37 air miles from the observatory — and 33 other cities and towns have taken light-reduction actions such as replacing 2500 outdoor street lamps.

• NATIVE AMERICAN OPPOSITION From the vague path that Vigue has sketched (see accompanying map), the superhighway might need to go through Penobscot Indian Nation land in western Maine, trespass on its Penobscot River water rights (now being litigated between the tribe and the state), or touch the many river islands the tribe possesses north of Indian Island, next to Old Town. (Vigue has never disclosed an exact path.)

"I personally am opposed to it," says Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis. "And if indeed it does impact tribal land — which I cannot see how it would not — I think our tribe would be very diligent in its opposition."

As sovereign nations, Native American tribes are not bound by environmental permitting deadlines, says Kristina Egan, a former top Massachusetts transportation planner and now a Freeport selectwoman.

• APPALACHIAN TRAIL The AT is a beloved national institution — and, officially, a national park. The AT would have to go over the superhighway or tunnel under it — apparently, near Monson or Bingham. And the highway would be visible from many vantages along Maine's and the nation's premier hiking trail.

The Department of the Interior would have to agree to a highway crossing. Venerable nonprofit guardians of the trail, such as the national Appalachian Trail Conference and the Maine Appalachian Trail Club, may object to the highway. They are able to mount an aggressive lobbying and legal effort.

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